Welcome to Vaishali
A sizable mass of jostling humanity crowded around near the huge Singhadwar (Lion Gate or Main Entrance) of Vaishali, the capital city of the small republican state of Lichhabi. The other three gates in the city wall were hermetically sealed, at least for the time being, and only through this main gate all entry and egress were permitted, and that too from sunrise to sunset. Everyday, at sunset, the gates were religiously shut down. The unfortunate few who could not gain entry by this time were forced to spend the night in the surrounding open fields – a not very attractive proposition, given the vagaries of nature and the tales of predators prowling in the jungles yonder, whose roars would chill the hearts of even the most dauntless. A detachment of the elite City Guards were on sentry duty at the gate, meticulously checking all identification papers before allowing people to enter. This, however, was not the usual run of things. These days were exceptional as the State was at war against the might of the neighbouring Magadha kingdom, ruled by the young king, Bimbisara of the Haryankas. King Bimbisara was reputed to be a valiant warrior who liked to lead campaigns at the head of his troops. This gallantry had made the people of Lichhabi regard him with grudging admiration, even though he was enemy. The Lichhabi army was, however, putting up a brave fight for their freedom and had already halted the enemy’s progress towards the capital. These were essentially a peace-loving people but they loved their State or Gana, as it was called, above all things on earth and were strong and intelligent warriors. They were aided in their campaign by another Gana, the Mallas, who, by their own rights, were valiant warriors themselves.
The time-setting of this evening’s incidence is, by our modern reckoning, about 530 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Indiawas still a young country and was as restless as any youngster could be. The entire population of the country could perhaps be fitted into any of the bigger Metro cities of today, with spaces to spare. The concept of Indiaas a nation had not come into being, as yet. The ancient city civilization of Harappa, far out in the west, had withered away. The Aryans on horse-back, wielding iron weapons, held the roost, sweeping in from the north, across Indus (known as Sindhu in those days) and the Land of the Five Rivers, along the fertile plains of the life-giving Ganga. The non-Aryans, which included the Dravidians, as the people of the Harappan society were called, were in a major way pushed down south beyond the Vindhya Hills, to merge with the original inhabitants there, who were yet languishing in the late Stone-Age. The few who had stayed back in the Aryabarta, as the Land of the Aryans was called, were branded as Dashas, or slaves, or Dashyus, or bandits. Although the two communities generally kept out of each other’s way, there was an intense distrust amongst them.
India, at that time, was divided into several warlike states, or Mahajanapadas, most of them, likeMagadha, Anga, Kasi, Kosala, Chedi, Kuru, Panchala, Matsya, Surasena, Avanti were monarchial, while a few like Lichhabi, Malla and Kamboja were republics. With the march of time,Magadha grew to become the most powerful kingdom and annexed almost all the Mahajanapadas to become the powerful empire that, as some historians say, caused even Alexander the Great to think twice before planning for a campaign along theGangeticValley. The prospect of facing the giganticMagadha army, under the Nandas, was too much for the fatigued and travel-worn Greek soldiers and they revolted, forcing Alexander to turn back. At the time when this story unfoldsMagadha was already a powerful kingdom roughly comprising of the districts ofPatna andGaya in modern Southern Bihar and parts of the state ofWest Bengal. In the north it was bound by the mighty River Ganga, in the east by the River Champa, in the south by the Vindhya mountains and in the west by the River Sona. Later it grew to become one of the mightiest and largest empires inIndia covering almost the whole of the sub-continent, but that was to come much later.
The sun leaned further back over the western hills, lighting up the entire city and its surroundings in a surreal clarity. The grey stone walls of the city soared up obscuring any view of the buildings within. Tall and thick walled towers punctuated the continuity of the wall. The wall, as well as the towers were strictly functional and were devoid of any frills or ornamentation. Soldiers patrolled the top of the wall, all through its length. Look-outs, with sharp eyes, were stationed atop the towers, in order to keep vigil. The State was indeed ay war!
The city itself was perched on the top of a mound, surrounded by lush green meadows on all sides. The ground sloped gradually down from the city walls to the plain land. This made it impossible for anyone to approach the wall undetected. A wide road ran down from the main gate, cut across the meadows, and hid itself from view behind the tall trees of the surrounding forest. This was the main thoroughfare to and from the citadel township – an earthen road beaten rock-hard by thousands of plodding feet and rutted in places by the passing wheels of carts and chariots. In the given scenario of battle and the closure of the city-gates, this road was presently empty of any straggler. The horizon on all sides was hemmed in by wooded hills acting as a natural barricade against any marauder.
Lichhabi, as I said earlier, was a Gana or a republican State. It was governed by a Council of Elders, the Gana Parishad, which was elected by the people. All posts of public office were rotational appointments were made on merit alone. Vaishali was singularly devoid of any major crime or corruption. A vigilant Kotwali, with its law-enforcing officers and soldiers, maintained a firm check on minor crimes too.
The state was bordered byMagadha, to the south and to the north and north-west by another republican state, Kapilavastu, whose son Siddhartha Gautama would soon change the course of history.
As the sun tipped further westwards, the waiting group became restless with a sense of urgency. Yet decorum was maintained, so that there was no hustle and bustle. A tall person with handsome features and a lean body, rippling with hard muscles, stepped forward when his turn came. Two horses tailed him, one, a particularly handsome stallion, all white, who would have been at home in any field of battle, and the other, a strong, chestnut brown and clearly a pack-horse, with all sorts of goodies packed on its back. He was wearing only a dhoti, with his upper torso bare, except for a length of white cloth running across his shoulder. His dhoti was pulled up to facilitate riding and on his feet he wore a rough sandal with a thick pair of soles, tied together by leather thongs. His wavy jet-black hair hung loose upto his shoulders. Apart from a long curved sword hanging from his waist-band, he was unarmed.
The new-comer thrust a piece of parchment under the nose of the sentry who was doubling as a clerk at that moment.
“Please, Sir,” said he in calm, controlled, fluent Magadhi Prakrit. “Please check my identity and permit me to enter this wonderful city of yours. I don’t exactly relish a night out there in the open with all these goods I have with me.”
The sentry-clerk inspected the proffered document and looked up to scrutinize the features of the stranger.
“Ah! A foreigner! Now let me see,” he answered in the same language, which happened to be his mother-tongue, scanning the document once again. The sentry could hardly be brought to task for calling another Indian ‘foreigner’, because, as I said before,Indiaas a nation did not exist at that time. To any citizen his home-state was his own and any state outside its boundary was foreign land.
“Shreshthi (businessman), is it?”
“Yes Sir, Shrenik Shreshthi, son of the late Vinayak Shreshthi, from the port city ofTamraliptain Anga. I bring goods from beyond the seas for the good people of Vaishali.”
“I see,” said the sentry. “Pray enter, my dear sir, but with a physique like yours, you should have been better suited as a warrior! Ever thought about it?”
“How could I? My dear sir, I was born a Vaishya, off a Vaishya father. There is not a trace of Kshatriya in my blood-line.”
The sentry nodded. He was brought up in the Caste or Varna system of Brahmin (priest and learned men), Kshatriya (warrior), Vaishya (trader) and Shudra (slave and untouchable) and respected the system. He swept his hand towards the open city gate.
“Get inside, my dear sir, welcome to Vaishali.”
To be continued….